“What I do is not up to you”:

Respect and Agency in Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins’ exceptional Wonder Woman is rightly being celebrated as one of the most inspiring and exhilarating superhero films to date. Still, it has not been immune to criticism, especially with regards to the female lead’s agency in certain moments. For example, some critics have questioned why Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is allotted so much screen time, and why his budding romantic relationship with Gal Gadot’s Diana was even part of the film. Does Diana’s relationship with Steve compromise her agency? These are valid concerns, but I believe they also misrepresent Diana’s control over her own agency, misconstrue Steve’s role in the relationship, and dismiss the genuine mutual respect for one another. My reasons for believing that the film’s central relationship between Diana and Steve works and does not compromise Diana or her agency will be explained here. I’m not offering answers, only my informed opinions based on multiple viewings of the film. There are countless articles exploring these same aspects of the film. I encourage you to seek them out to help form your own well-rounded, thoughtful, and comprehensive readings of Wonder Woman.

One of the most important aspects of Diana’s and Steve’s pairing is that throughout their journey together, from epic battles to quieter moments of intimate conversation, they retain the utmost respect for one another. Steve, for all of his humble-bragging about being “above average” for his gender, is at heart a kind and compassionate soul, like Diana. At times, he tries to play the traditional male role of protector because of several factors. One is that this is how men are raised; Steve has been conditioned to believe that men are the protectors of women, and that men are the ones to fight wars and possibly die for their efforts. He can be forgiven for some of this, owing to the highly patriarchal era (World War 1) in which he resides. What makes Steve anything but a stereotypical toxic male, though, is that beneath all of this patriarchal conditioning he deeply respects Diana from their first encounter forward. Certainly, he makes several failed attempts at stopping her from putting herself in harm’s way, and these are most likely born out of his growing love for her—what man or woman hasn’t wanted to protect a loved one from potential danger? What’s important here is that when he tries to protect Diana, she still persists while following her own free will. “What I do is not up to you,” she emphatically states in one powerful scene.

Diana leads Steve and their ragtag group of mercenaries into the war front. Steve may be the nominal leader of the group, but Diana quickly becomes the true driving force that Steve and the other men follow. Take the the showstopping No Man’s Land scene, for example. Diana and Steve argue over her insistence of taking on the Germans in order to save the lives of local villagers. Diana’s heart breaks for the innocent lives being lost while Steve tries to emphasize the bigger picture of the complexities of war. Diana ignores Steve’s pleas, and in one of the film’s most iconic and inspirational moments she climbs out of the trenches and into the fray. Steve quickly realizes that by taking on the full brunt of the Germans’ artillery assault, Diana is clearing a path for him and the other soldiers to attack the enemy. This is one of several instances where Diana takes control of a situation and Steve not only follows, but selflessly provides support for her efforts.

The scene between Diana and Steve on the boat, as they journey from Themyscira to the war, is not only one of the film’s most memorable, but also perfectly captures what makes their relationship compelling. Diana’s easy, playfully teasing dialogue, while Steve stutters and stammers about the societal impropriety of sleeping next to her, is entirely refreshing. She’s neither being the sexual aggressor or the prude, as most films would cast the female character. Instead she is expressing sincere intellectual curiosity about Steve and the mores of his world. While they discuss sexuality through the lenses of their respective cultures—which leads to some truly touching and funny moments between Gadot and Pine—the conversation is never creepy, or laced with gratuitous sexual aggression. Instead, they’re delicately exploring their shared interest in one another’s cultures, while also slyly acknowledging a growing attraction between them. This is a tremendous example of two adult characters sharing a tender moment that prizes humanity and humor above all else, showing how thoughtfully a progressive relationship between a woman and a man can be portrayed on screen. Jenkins allowed Gadot and Pine to improvise this scene, and their relaxed chemistry with one another shines through. It’s a beautiful bit of acting on both their parts. The scene establishes what will become the pattern for the characters throughout the film: they may not always understand one another, they may disagree and even argue heatedly, but they will always find their way back to trusting and respecting one another. In this way, Diana’s fascination with and caring for Steve provides another example of the character’s core personality traits of compassion, kindness, acceptance, and love.

Gadot’s and Pine’s performances are so wonderful, so beautifully and subtly crafted, that their relationship feels believably honest. Their chemistry is apparent from their first scene together, and it only grows over the course of the film. There’s an honest tenderness to their dialogue and in how they lock eyes as if they are seeing into each other’s souls. Patty Jenkins is also to be commended for not rushing the relationship into romantic territory, but instead allowing it to unfold naturally. Once it does reach that point, it never hampers Diana’s progress or autonomy thereafter. Jenkins allows us to bask in the awkward first blush of a sweet and mutually respectful infatuation, which grows into a love built on mutual respect above all else. Diana and Steve remain true to themselves, while still caring deeply for each other. Their love for one another also instills the film with elements sorely lacking in other superhero films, such as a real sense of longing and desire, along with an honest emotional connection forged between two people of opposite genders.

Jenkins thoughtfully handles the potential consummation of their relationship. During a night of respite after a victory, Diana and Steve slow dance, providing one of the film’s most beautiful scenes. After the initial witty banter about who knows more about dancing, they hold each other close and just “sway,” while looking intently in each other’s eyes. Jenkins then pulls back to a stunningly gorgeous long shot of them holding one another in the center of the frame, while others around them party, the snow softy falling from the sky. This moment leads to an impassioned kiss in Diana’s room, before Jenkins cuts away, leaving unsaid what transpires next, allowing us to fill in the blanks. What’s refreshing is how their night together never alters their dynamic or Diana’s independence. In most films, Diana’s autonomy might be compromised after this moment. Not here, though. She remains the strong and dominant character she was before that evening. Nothing changes. Her love for Steve never robs her of her own agency. Through the skillful direction of Jenkins and the masterful performances by Gadot and Pine, Wonder Woman creates a template for how to present a complex and mature adult relationship between romantic leads without sacrificing the female character’s agency.

During her climactic battle with Ares, the God of War, Diana witnesses Steve sacrifice his life to save countless other lives from the Germans’ murderous poison gas. She replays their final, heartbreaking conversation from moments before in her mind. As they hold each other, she implores him to let her do whatever needs to be done. Steve replies, “It has to be me. I can save today. You can save the world. … I wish we had more time.” Then he hands her his father’s watch, signaling back to one of their first conversations, and tells her that he loves her. Some critics have expressed frustration that it’s Steve’s death that seems to push Diana into finally stopping Ares for good. Why didn’t she remember her fellow Amazonian sisters in this time of despair? This is an understandable question, but one that seems to misconstrue Diana’s motivations throughout the film.

All along, she earnestly believes in the very best of humanity, considering it her duty to protect mankind from the ravages of war and death, for which she blames Ares. That belief wavers when she realizes that it’s more complicated than she had imagined. It isn’t entirely Ares’ fault, but in fact humanity itself shares in the blame. Diana is visibly, emotionally devastated by this realization. Remembering her final moments with Steve only serves to reinforce what she already believed: humanity is overwhelmingly good and worth saving. During her limited experiences since leaving Themyscira, Steve represents the best of humanity for her, and she knows the world is filled with more men and women like him. The scene does not invalidate her agency, or make her motivated solely by her love for a man. Instead, and along with her decision spare the evil Dr. Poison’s life even against Ares’ wishes, it shows that her compassion and love for all human beings are so enormous and unwavering that she would never stop fighting to protect them.

Over the years, Wonder Woman has become a shining example of female empowerment. She is now idolized by women, and men, across the globe and the film has only increased her popularity. It would have been a crime to have saddled her with an uninspired and problematic relationship with Steve. Instead, Jenkins and crew made it clear that Diana’s love for Steve does not impede her autonomy, or reduce her to second fiddle in her own story. Certainly, it’s fair to note that Steve has more screen time than most female romantic partners in similar films. However it’s also important to realize that most of his screen time is in service to fleshing out Diana herself, by showing us how she navigates both her relationship to him and to her new world. She and Steve help each other, in similar and in different ways, but the film is fully Diana’s story, from beginning to end. Steve plays a role, but he remains secondary to Diana’s own journey and growth throughout. He serves a purpose both personally and metaphorically for Diana and for the audience. How she feels about him can be seen as a symbolic reminder of her love and compassion for all of humanity. This clear understanding of what makes Wonder Woman special is one of the most important reasons why the film succeeds on so many levels.

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Michael Campochiaro works in academic publishing and spends any free time he can find reading and drawing. You can read more of Michael's musings at his blog, Words Seem Out Of Place.

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1 Comment

  1. I have no issue with your argument regarding Steve Trevor — he’s been such a vital part of the mythos of so long now that one may be upset of he wasn’t included so much. But Wonder Woman is not a great film, by any stretch. Is it important? Sure, if only to redress the inequality in superhero films. Is it a triumph for feminism? Well, yes and no. In order for the film to be a feminist triumph, it also has to prop up the box office receipts for the largest media conglomerate in the world, Warner Bros. So it’s a complex entanglement between two contradictory instantiations. What bothers me most about the film is the casual racism (an ‘indian’ called Chief, blowing smoke signals…come on) and that the entire film falls apart in the third act. It’s an average film, perhaps a better superhero film, but not much better. I am fascinated at the emotional scripts that come attached with the film, almost as if labelling it in a negative way is misogynist. It’s okay. Of course, this is only my viewpoint, and I’m glad you enjoyed it, Michael. One of the best superhero films to date? Not likely

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